American goalkeeper Brad Friedel once made the following observation:
“My colleagues spend most of their time with their backs turned towards me. I don’t believe it’s because I’m unpopular – honestly.”
Now I’m sure that Brad is a lovely man, but being popular off the pitch, and being popular on it, are two different things entirely. Nobody else in football can drop so dramatically from ‘hero to zero’ quite like those crazy enough to opt for a full time career between the sticks.
Take Brazilian goalkeeper Moacir Barbosa for example. Barbosa was once held in high regard by fans and experts alike, yet after being held largely responsible for Uruguay’s second goal against Brazil in the 1950 World Cup, he claims that he was insulted every single day of his life; for the next fifty years. Not that he’s bitter, but as a side note he also pointed out that the maximum prison sentence in his home country only last for thirty.
David De Gea has recently revealed that he considered a move back to Spain during his difficult first season at Old Trafford. The overwhelming scrutiny of the British media combined with the pressure of playing for one of England’s ‘elite’ clubs almost took its toll on the young Spaniard. De Gea was just twenty when he was thrust into the spotlight at United, with Ferguson splashing out around £18 million to bring him to Manchester in 2011. During the dawn of De Gea’s Premier League career, the physical nature of English football continuously left Ferguson berating officials and demanding more protection for his young goalkeeper.
Opposing fans also got stuck into De Gea, mainly through social media sites; a fact not helped by his uncanny resemblance to a friendly llama.
Naturally, any incoming goalkeeper at Manchester United will be under more pressure than most due to the club’s stature, but they will also draw comparisons, often unfairly, with arguably the best goalkeeper of the Premier League era – Peter Schmeichel. Only Edwin Van Der Sar has threatened to emulate the big Dane, with Ferguson admitting that he should have signed the Dutchman years earlier. Like Schmeichel, Van Der Sar kept goal for United in one of two Champions League successes under Sir Alex. It remains to be seen if De Gea will have the opportunity to win the biggest prize in club football with the Red Devils but, unlike Schmeichel, at least he hasn’t been on the receiving end of a Roy Keane head-butt.
Could De Gea’s difficult integration into English football have been handled differently, allowing his confidence to steadily build before throwing him in at the deep end? It’s an argument that could be strengthened by the success of Chelsea’s current number one, Thibaut Courtois.
The Belgian ‘keeper also joined the Premier League ranks in 2011 but was instantly loaned out to Atletico Madrid, ironically as a replacement for the departing De Gea. Petr Cech was still at the peak of his powers which meant that this was a relatively simple decision for Chelsea, whereas United needed a direct replacement for Edwin Van Der Sar immediately, when the Dutchman hung up his gloves at the end of the 2010/2011 campaign.
Courtois made over one hundred appearances for Atletico Madrid, winning the Europa League, the UEFA Super Cup and the Copa del Rey. He was also instrumental as Los Colchoneros finished top of the pile against all the odds in last season’s La Liga.
In comparison to De Gea’s shaky start in the Premier League, Courtois has taken to English football like a duck to water. He was twenty-two at the start of this season, and had greater opportunity to hone his talents away from the scrums frequenting the penalty areas of England’s elite division. As a result, he looks completely at home at Stamford Bridge, and has forced Petr Cech to sit with the rest of the Chelsea substitutes.
So, with both goalkeepers seemingly settled at their respective clubs, who has had the most successful start to the 2014/15 season?
Both De Gea and Cech have kept two clean sheets each, though Courtois did leave the field early against Arsenal after clashing with Alexis Sanchez, so isn’t awarded a third.
It could be argued that United’s shaky defence means De Gea has had to work much harder to earn those clean sheets, and the Spaniard has made thirteen saves to Courtois’ seven, backing up this argument. De Gea has also made 1.30 saves per goal conceded; a superior figure to that of Courtois, who clocks in with a slightly lower figure of 1.17.
De Gea’s intelligent distribution is often lauded, and he has a 67% accuracy rate when launching the ball to teammates. Courtois has a respectable 57%, but may still be adapting to his new teammates and the different pace of the English game. Expect this figure to improve by the end of the season.
The Belgian ‘keeper has made 19 catches to De Gea’s 15; an unsurprising result as Courtois stands at 6 ft 6 in, a height advantage of two inches over the Manchester United man.
Make no mistake, both are fantastic goalkeepers. Obviously De Gea has made mistakes in his time at United, namely against Tottenham and Sunderland last year, but you would suspect that Courtois won’t be completely error-free in his early years at Chelsea either.
United were thankful for De Gea’s shot-stopping ability against Everton, while Courtois was singled out for praise from Jose Mourinho after Chelsea’s win over Leicester. So who would I rather have in my team?
I’ll have to go for De Gea. I just love llamas.